The Perils of #MeToo as a Muslim

Women are speaking up about Islamic scholars and clergymen who have allegedly preyed on their piety—but they face pressures unlike those in Hollywood, the media, or even other religious groups.

Tariq Ramadan is seen during an interview with Reuters in New York on April 8, 2010.  (Mike Segar / Reuters)

This has been a difficult year for Muslims. I’m referring not only to the external forces that buffet us daily—anti-Muslim hate crimes, inflammatory tweets or President Trump’s travel ban—but also to the internal ruptures that have forced us to reexamine our own communities. As the #MeToo movement reveals the names of alleged sexual predators in politics, media, and business, and the #ChurchToo hashtag trends on Twitter, Muslims are also grappling with fresh allegations against revered men.

Muslim women are speaking up about Islamic scholars and clergymen who have allegedly preyed on their piety, and their stories are forcing a reckoning about the fallibility of these outsized personalities.

What distinguishes the moment of reckoning among Muslims is that it takes place in the context of forces that aren't present for the media, Hollywood, or even other religious groups. Anti-Muslim sentiment has made Muslims balk at publicly airing their dirty laundry; nobody wants to fan the already raging flames of Islamophobia. What’s more, discussions about sexual misconduct and the misuse of power remain taboo in many Islamic circles. Finally, sizable personality worship continues to persist within modern Islam.

But as this year comes to a close, it offers Muslims an opportunity to embrace a necessary and liberating realization. Our faith should not be contingent on individual preachers and scholars; instead, it should be established independently of them. To the extent that relying on individual leaders reflects an immutable human need, we should ensure that our leaders reflect our diversity and are held accountable. This requires including more women leaders in our religious spaces.

The name of Swiss-born Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan is at the epicenter of France’s #MeToo uprising, known as #BalanceTonPorc (“expose your pig”). Two Muslim women have accused him of rape and sexual assault. Ramadan, who has taken a leave of absence from Oxford University, denied the allegations and attributed them to “a campaign of slander clearly orchestrated by my longtime adversaries.”

Ramadan, who is the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, has been a controversial figure in France on the topic of Muslim identity and assimilation for more than two decades. In a country that understands secularism more in terms of freedom from religion than freedom of religion, he has worked to defend Islam and determine a place for it in public life. But as Adam Shatz wrote recently in The New Yorker, Ramadan is “a projection screen, or Rorschach test, for national anxiety about the ‘Muslim question.’”

Against the backdrop of the terrorist violence that has plagued France in recent years and the brazen anti-Muslim response from the European far right, Ramadan’s case is no longer about women’s rights. It has instead devolved into a racist discussion about political Islam that seeks to demonize Muslim men and blame the religion for his alleged behavior. In the eyes of much of French society, as Souad Betka noted in the online magazine Les Mots Sont Importants, “a Muslim man is always more than a man. He is the tree that represents the forest.”

Ramadan’s defenders readily attribute the allegations to a “Zionist conspiracy” or to an Islamophobic effort to topple the prominent scholar. They also discourage Muslim women from speaking out, arguing that it may cast all Muslim men in a negative light and may embolden Islamophobes. “It is exhausting that Muslim women’s voices and our bodies are reduced to proxy battlefields by the demonizers and defenders of Muslim men,” Mona Eltahawy wrote in The New York Times. “Neither side cares about women. They are concerned only with one another.” Caught in the middle, the voices of those affected by sexual violence risk being further suppressed.

In early fall of this year, a Texas-based Islamic teacher named Nouman Ali Khan was accused of inappropriate relationships with multiple Muslim women, including some who worked for him or sought his counsel. The relationships, at odds with the moral virtues he publicly espoused, allegedly involved shirtless selfies and vile texts, screenshots of which surfaced shortly afterward. Khan has garnered a robust, international following among young Muslims for his animated Koran lectures, which meld a conservative interpretation of scriptural texts about male-female relations with relatable, modern-day scenarios. In a Facebook post on Khan’s page, he “explicitly” rejected and denied the allegations.

Though Khan has not been charged with a crime, the fallout polarized the Muslim community. In cyberspace specifically, there was a barrage of mudslinging against female critics to coerce them into silence. The women involved in the scandal, who claimed to be threatened with lawsuits if they spoke up, were also maligned. As Shaheen Pasha wrote in The Dallas Morning News, “Some Muslims considered them vengeful scorned women and questioned their religious purity for even engaging in such conversations with Khan.”

This reaction reveals why talking about sexual abuse openly and honestly within the Muslim community can be fraught with difficulty. The Koran and Prophetic traditions are replete with “references to sex and sexuality which are celebratory and what we might today call ‘sex positive,’” said Zareena Grewal, a professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale University. But, she added, they “have typically been interpreted by Muslims in ways that privilege men and patriarchy.” While discussions of consensual sex in the context of marriage are acceptable, sexual assault and abuse of power fall outside these boundaries.

The response to a 2015 revelation likewise echoed this sad truth. That year, reports unexpectedly surfaced of sexual misconduct within Chicago’s South Asian Muslim community. Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, an imam and founder of a boarding school known as the Institute of Islamic Education, was accused in a lawsuit by multiple women of decades of sexual assault and child sex abuse. When he pled guilty to two counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse in 2016, several civil suits still awaited him.

Though Saleem’s transgressions made headlines and were appropriately brought before the law, the conversations they sparked faded by 2017. Few tangible efforts resulted within Muslim communities to identify, investigate, and prevent such abuses in the future. Reminiscent of a new investigative report by The Associated Press that illuminated the rampant sexual abuse of children by clerics in Pakistan’s madrasas, here was a vivid example of how depraved religious figures potentially lurk inside the walls of mosques and other Muslim spaces—and yet it was brushed under the rug until the #MeToo moment caused a stir that made it impossible to ignore.

Complicating all this is a danger that exists in any religion: the potential for cult-like personality worship. The spiritual search for God is suffused with great emotion, and the reverence for, and reliance on, the religious figures involved often affords them great power and influence. These preachers and scholars are seen as the actual path to discovering God, when they are only really meant to shine a light on the path, which must be traversed by each individual independently.

In Islam’s nascent stages, a budding Muslim community became distraught after Muhammad’s death. Many wondered how Islam would endure in his absence. A belief began to sprout that the Prophet had been taken to heaven and would return shortly. Cognizant of this exaggerated focus on the individual, Abu Bakr, a close companion of Muhammad who became the first Caliph, said, “O men, if anyone worships Muhammad, Muhammad is dead; if anyone worships God, God is alive, immortal!”

Personality worship wasn’t limited to early Islam. Nowadays, the Sufi shrines, or mazars, of prominent saints like Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and Data Ganj Baksh in Pakistan teem with thousands of highly dedicated devotees on special occasions. Followers venerate these men as mediators between themselves and God, often praying directly to them for health, jobs, marriage, and fertility.

Regardless of whether the figure is historical or contemporary, many people are attracted to a leader who offers something transcendent. In the process of elevating that leader, they often dismiss his moral failings, deeming him near-infallible and allowing him to live with impunity. This approach typifies some of Ramadan’s besieged Muslim supporters in France and throughout the West, who look to his words to reconcile their hyphenated identities. It also typifies some of Khan’s apologists, whose virulent online backlash may dissuade Muslim women in the future from making known sexual crimes they've experienced.

According to Ayesha Chaudhry, a professor of Islamic studies and gender studies at the University of British Columbia, these examples of personality worship mostly revolve around men “because in patriarchal societies, people follow men more easily than women.”

This is why it’s so crucial to double down on the longstanding effort to expand female religious authorities’ involvement in Islam. Long ago, authentic prophetic traditions tell us, our forebears lived in a more egalitarian society in which women acted as religious leaders. Today, this spirit is preserved in multiple South African mosques and at the Noor Cultural Centre in Toronto, to name a couple of examples. There, women are active members of the mosque committees, give Friday sermons, and share authority with men in all initiatives.

Generally, however, although many Muslim women possess the necessary qualifications, few find themselves on speaker panels or in mosque leadership positions. More inclusive spaces would provide support and protection for vulnerable women and, on a more systemic level, challenge an entrenched patriarchy. As Chaudhry pointed out, the voices of marginalized groups like women are important because power does not see itself or its own abuses: “The only way to see what patriarchy is and how it works is to have diverse voices that include those marginalized by it.” To galvanize the Muslim #MeToo revolution, we must amplify the voices of victims regardless of whether the perpetrators are our beloved preachers or scholars, and regardless of Islamophobia. For a faith that began centuries ago with a stated goal of countering society’s unconscionable injustices, this is a natural obligation.